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Am I doing gratitude wrong?

Well, this is embarrassing…I’m a committed gratitude advocate, and I recently realised I’ve been doing gratitude a bit wrong!
The benefits of gratitude for our well-being are well documented. Research has demonstrated that a consistent gratitude practice can not only make us feel better, it can change our brains, both structurally and functionally.

Benefits include increased psychological, emotional, and mental well-being, enhanced emotion regulation, increased salience of positive thoughts, greater feelings of happiness and optimism, and reduced experience of physical pain in chronic health conditions. The evidence is clear – gratitude is great!

Personally, I have been aware of the benefits of gratitude for a long time, and I have been committed  to enhancing my gratitude practice and that of my family. Each night at dinner we all share five things for which we are grateful (or, in the case of our youngest “what made me happy today”). This routine is a great way of teaching our children to look for their blessings, and it gives us as parents a great insight into their worlds and what they are experiencing.

Unsurprisingly, with the critical mass of compelling scientific evidence in support of the benefits of gratitude, I’ve also been preaching on gratitude to my coaching clients. I encourage all of my clients to develop a gratitude practice as a way of enhancing their well-being and achieving greater clarity about what they truly value and appreciate. Those who do it report that it genuinely helps, which is why this has become a staple of my coaching practice.

However, I had an epiphany recently, and I’m a bit embarrassed at what I realised. Despite knowing all about the benefits of gratitude from extensively reading the research being conducted into the neuroscience of gratitude and encouraging those around me to develop a gratitude practice, I’ve been doing it wrong. Here’s where I went wrong:

When identifying the things for which I am grateful, I have focused exclusively on the things that I perceive to be positive AT THAT TIME. In all of my gratitude practices, I have NEVER been grateful for something that was hard, hurtful, disappointing or negative: at least, not at the time they were occurring.

With the benefit of hindsight, I have been able to be grateful for difficult things that ultimately led to positive outcomes. However, whilst the difficult thing remains difficult, there has been no gratitude from me WHATSOEVER.

This realisation got me thinking: if being grateful enhances well-being, and improves mood and quality of life, why do I wait for negative things to become positive before I am grateful for them? What would happen if I learned to be grateful for the hard things, when they are still hard?

It seems possible that getting grateful sooner has the capacity to lessen the suffering and allow me to experience the benefits of gratitude before the situation has been resolved.

I recognise that I have become quite adept at finding and appreciating the lesson after the fact, but that seems like doing gratitude lip service. If I can assume (based on many examples) that it is safe to trust that the lesson is there, and I will find it, this opens up the possibility of being grateful in the moment – even before the lesson is clear.

This concept of cultivating gratitude in the midst of a challenging situation, rather than waiting for it to be resolved, aligns well with my intentions for 2020. When I completed an intention setting exercise at the beginning of the year (you can learn more about that exercise here), I identified that I wanted to “BE PRESENT”, and my word for the year was “TRUST”.

Remaining present means not looking beyond the moment, so recognising that hard things carry a possibility of a good outcome and are therefore worthy of gratitude NOW is a good way of achieving my aspiration of being present. Similarly, trusting that the lesson will emerge from the challenge helps me in my quest to live in trust.

None of this is to suggest that gratitude is the antidote to all despair, or that simply being grateful will always be enough to make us feel better. Some things are genuinely awful, and it is naïve and unhelpful to suggest that we should always be grateful.

​However, when I experience challenges which seem difficult and negative, I am endeavouring to cultivate gratitude in the moment, rather than waiting for the benefit of hindsight to highlight the opportunities presented by that situation. In so doing, I am optimistic that I will not only lessen my own (self-imposed) suffering, but also enhance my gratitude aptitude: both of which sound like a win to me!

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